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Lunch and a Bite of History: Author talks about Tracy cut, railroad blockades of 1880s

Author and historian Cindy Wilson gave a presentation on the infamous winter of 1880-1881 that inspired Laura Ingalls Wilder's book “The Long Winter”. Wilson is an American Studies major at the University of Minnesota and a charter member of Laura Ingalls Wilder Legacy and Research Association. She recently wrote a non-fiction book about the difficulties the impact the winter of 1880-1881 had on the railroad through southwestern Minnesota.

NEW ULM — The infamous Tracy cut and the railroad blockades during the winter of 1880-1881 were the subject of the Brown County Historical Society’s (BCHS) lunchtime presentation Thursday.

The historical presentation was part of the Lunch and a Bite of History program. This was the first time this event series was held in the BCHS annex in 14 months. The history series was paused due to the pandemic.

Author Cindy Wilson gave a presentation was on a paused event, specifically the train service to frontier towns in southwestern Minnesota during the winter of 1880-1881.

Wilson is an American Studies major at the University of Minnesota and a charter member of Laura Ingalls Wilder Legacy and Research Association.

She recently wrote a book called “The Beautiful Snow: The Ingalls Family, the Railroads, and the Hard Winter of 1880-81”.

Wilson

Wilson’s book and her presentation detailed the extreme winter that left a lasting impression on many early pioneer families of Minnesota. The events of this winter were the subject of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s book “The Long Winter”.

Wilson used Wilder’s book to spur further research into the history of the winter. In addition to Wilder’s book, Brown County newspapers heavily documented the blizzards of this year. Old plat maps and modern drone photography also helped explain the reason this winter proved challenging to Minnesota settlers.

Wilson explained the context of Wilder’s book “The Long Winter.” The winter season began early in mid-October with a blizzard. Near constant blizzards would hit southern Minnesota until April. This caused a problem with the railroad lines. The tracks were constantly being buried in snow. The railroad companies could clear the snow, but the hardest parts to clear were “the cuts”.

A railroad cut is where a hillside has been cut through the hills to allow trains to pass through. These cuts were often not that deep, but it was easy for snow to be trapped in the cuts blocking train travel. By mid-January 1881 train traffic was effectively cut off to the western part of Minnesota because of these blocked cuts. The towns west of the blockades were new towns that relied on supplies from the east. Without these trains, the towns ran low on fuel and food. Many citizens were cold and hungry. This would last until the blizzards ended in April. The trains returned in early May.

In Wilder’s novel, the railroad cut west of Tracy is blamed for the railroad service stopping. “The Long Winter” is set in De Smet, South Dakota, about 100 miles west of Tracy.

The Lunch and a Bite of History presentation focused on railroad cuts, but Wilson included photo of New Ulm during the winter of 1881. Downtown Minnesota Street saw heavy snowfall. Newspaper accounts suggest one snow drift was so large is served as a temporary saloon.

Wilson attempted to identify which railroad cut blocked rail service. She found two cuts within the first four miles of Tracy. In the novel, Pa Ingalls tells his daughter the railroad crews were trying to clear one of the cuts, but all progress was undone but another snowstorm that would fill the cut in again.

The first major storm of the season was in mid-October. A week and a half after the storm, the railroad had only cleared half the track between Tracy and De Smet. The historical record shows that November had mild weather and much of the snow melted. Train service regularly made it to De Smet, but by January the blizzards returned and the problems with the cuts returned. Eventually, the railroad did abandon attempts to clear the rails until spring, effectively abandoning the western towns.

Historical records do confirm the railroad had difficulty clearing the rail cuts, but Wilson’s research suggested there was no single cut responsible, but several blocked cuts throughout the winter. Newspapers from the time indicated railroad cuts between New Ulm and Sleepy Eye were temporarily blocked.

Wilson found a photo of a blocked railroad cut taking March 29, 1881, that was located a little west of Sleepy Eye.

“This is, in reality, the cut that stopped the trains from reaching much farther west than Sleepy Eye,” Wilson said. “Trains couldn’t get much further west to be hindered by the Tracy cut.”

The last blizzard of 1881 occurred in April, but spring flooding caused washouts, further delaying railway service. The first train did not reach the Ingalls home in De Smet until May 4 or May 5, 1881. Wilson said this first train had farming equipment and building material. The second train on May 6, 1881, brought food. This means Wilson was delivering her presentation on the 140 anniversary of De Smet receiving food supplies and the end of hardships caused by the long winter.

The long winter did have an impact on railroad operations. Many of the cuts were widened to prevent snow from being trapped. Natural snow fences, such as trees, were planted along with vulnerable cuts.

Despite changes to railroad service trains in Minnesota still get stuck. Wilson had a photo of a stuck train taken February 2019 in Freeborn County. In this case, the train crew needed to be rescued by the National Guard.

The next Lunch and a Bite of History are scheduled for Thursday, May 20. Terry Sveine will give a presentation on the history of grocery stores in New Ulm. Sveine will give two presentations, the first at 12 p.m. and the second at 6:30 p.m.

Reservations are required to attend.

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